The Cold War was certainly high stakes times. With nukes pointed at each other, Russia and the West (read USA) were poised at any minute to destroy each other. Never the less, somehow the world survived.
For Americans the Soviet Union was the home of all bad guys while the white hats resided in the West. Capitalism was good, Communism was bad. Even though the stakes were high, it didn’t take geniuses to figure a foreign policy and get the Country’s support. It was the best of times for politicians too, for in foreign affairs they could never be wrong.
The US like most Countries operate day to day upon the backs of its bureaucracies. The State Department, Defense, Treasury, Interior, and all the others are largely staffed by long term civil servants. The advantages are supposed to be political neutrality and long term competence. Things change, however. The world today challenges our bureaucracies with multi-polar alliances and the fact that no one wears a totally white hat and even the bad guys don’t wear black hats all the time.
This nuanced reality will test the current Administration as well as those that follow. While recent history asked that the US lead and others follow, today’s economic as well as political realities do not present as easy a set of facts upon which the US can set a foreign policy.
One reason it is difficult for the US to assert a moral leadership is that our recent track record has not been lily white. And other Countries know that. Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, the death penalty, and drone collateral deaths all make others question American leadership.
An even more serious question is upon which national interests should American leadership be based. Should we be for championing free markets, Democracies, or human rights? Or, should we be more focused upon trade and especially for methods to boost exports and provide access to oil and rare earths? Or, are we comfortable enough in our own skin that we can retreat to isolationist thoughts and only worry about true threats to our American soil?
It is very difficult once one has been the leader to step back and play a secondary role. What CEOs or orchestra conductors do you know who stepped back from the number one position and then continued to work as a member of the supporting team?
So listen for our Presidential hopefuls to speak out on foreign and domestic policy and careful try to understand what they are proposing. Do they already have a set of national interests they will construct their policies to meet? The claims of regaining America’s leadership role is hooey. Leading in an outdated method against goals which are unrealistic is a prescription for getting lost.
Most likely no politician is going to say, “if elected I will perform a top to bottom review of the State Department and realign where necessary the current talent in order to better match up with the world’s realities”. Government does not need to be cut, it needs to be rejuvenated.
Imagine telling other Countries to follow the US while the country’s education system is falling in world ranking, or when the US infrastructure is crumbling before our eyes, or into the reality that upward mobility is falling behind much of Europe. And, strangely we do.
There are many ways the US can foster soft ideas we claim to hold dear. The US can economically reinforce Counties which adopt progressive human rights agendas, or ones that open their electoral process to more democratic methods. Foreign policy needs a clear set of national priorities and interests we wish to protect.
Leadership as most Americans imagine, requires up to date thinking and much more “do as I do, not as I say” than we are used to seeing.
Let’s see what the 2016 hopefuls say.